Why It's Important for Managers To "Keep a Little Distance"
Getting too close to your employees can cause management problems.
Posted February 4, 2019
It's a little ironic: You're often taught in management that it's important to forge good relationships with your employees. Which is a sentiment I fully agree with. Yet at the same time I'd argue that it's important not to get too close. (To be clear, when I say "close relationships" in this context, I'm not talking about romantic relationships, just working friendships of varying degrees of closeness.)
So why am I wary of too-close manager-employee relationships? While it may initially sound counter-intuitive, there are definite managerial problems that can result from such relationships. Here are two substantive ones.
Perceptions of favoritism. Whether or not you actually are "playing favorites" - that is to say, treating one employee differently from others - it's easy for individuals on a team to get that idea if a manager's friendship with a particular employee seems especially close. And these perceptions can harm team dynamics, as they can lead to jealousy, hurt feelings, and so on. As a manager you naturally want to be thought of as fair to all; becoming too close to one employee can undermine that perception. And if in fact you are playing favorites, conferring benefits on one employee above the others, it goes without saying that's a significant problem itself.
It can be hard to take corrective action when you need to. Forging too close a relationship has another subtle but significant drawback: If job performance goes awry - when an employee's performance goes off track and is not where it needs to be - the closeness of a relationship may make it difficult to take as firm managerial action as needed. A manager is then in an awkward position: Take strong action, which may feel harsh and possibly damage a relationship, or take too little action and shirk your management responsibilities. Additionally, taking too little action in the face of poor performance may well also be noticed and adversely regarded by other team members (note point above on favoritism).
None of these are good management options. Which is why it's beneficial for managers to "keep a little distance" and avoid being compromised in any way. It's an entirely natural tendency for some managers to like one employee more than another. It's just human nature; fact is, some employees are more likable, have better attitudes, and are more enjoyable to work with.
But it's a natural tendency that in my estimation should be resisted. And diligently guarded against. It's an easy path to follow, but it likely won't lead you to a desirable place.
In looking back over my own management career, I believe maintaining distance is something I generally did pretty well. It suited my own inclinations and my somewhat reserved temperament. But in the relatively few instances where I ignored my instincts and forged closer bonds with a specific employee, I invariably came to regret it. It made it harder to take the actions I needed to, and then when I did it caused awkwardness in the relationships... and I realized I would have been better off all along maintaining the discipline of my normal distance.
Manager-employee relationships can be a delicate business, for sure. Which is why I believe a little distance is the simplest and best position from which to exercise management authority.
This article first appeared at Forbes.com.